Charles E. Wittschiebe was professor in theAdventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University at the time he wrote this article.

A characteristic often seen is the loss of normal patterns of conduct. There will be restlessness, aimless movements, a continual searching. The careful person will now become careless. The tidy housekeeper quite sloppy. The person who before could concentrate even to the point of becoming absent-minded now can't even remember how to pick up the telephone or how to dial a number.

Still another characteristic that occasionally occurs is the appearance of traits of the deceased in the life of the bereaved. The oldest son may start to act like his father, the oldest daughter like her mother. Frequently the individuals in the family will get some of the symptoms of the disease that took away the loved one. After the father has died of heart trouble, particularly at an early age, the son closest to him may start having pains in the region of the heart.

Less frequently the bereaved may take over the work of the deceased. In a sense the dead person continues to live on vicariously in the living. This is a form of identification with the dead that can easily become very unhealthy it may lead to the smothering of the individual's own personality.

You see this now and then in politics when the wife of a senator or other officeholder will carry on in his stead. If the woman is in politics herself to a degree and has a natural bent in this direction, then it can be quite wholesome.

But if she forces herself into such a pattern as a labor of love, then we can expect emotional trouble sooner or later.

The negative possibilities here are seldom seen, since the conduct of the bereaved is considered to be a rare type of devotion to the memory of the dead almost heroic in its nature.


I. Hidden Factors

Now let us examine the symptoms of abnormal grief. We have already said that physical distress accompanies normal grief. For this to be pathological is more a matter of intensity and of duration. An unusual degree of illness of a chronic type, with all kinds of morbid emotional overtones becomes "abnormal." For physical distress to go on for months and years raises the suspicion that other factors not seen are at work. This requires a careful look by the counselor. Consultation with the in-doctor is certainly in order. This would be an excellent area in which to work together.

II. Delayed Reactions

A second characteristic of abnormal grief is the delayed-grief reaction. This is to say that grief does not work itself out in a normal way in the weeks following the death. Sometimes it breaks out, often in bizarre forms, years later. It may be a large factor in bringing about a condition of mental illness.

III. Distorted Behavior Patterns

A third way of showing abnormal grief is the presence of distortions in the way of behaving. Persons do what we would call odd, queer, peculiar things, as compared to what they usually do. The woman who, for instance, wanders off by herself every evening or goes down to the grave every evening to cry, or wanders alone to the seashore, or sits hour after hour without talking these can be indications, if long continued, of abnormal grief.

Sometimes we see radical changes in attitudes toward friends and relatives. Of course, when you don't like a person before a loved one dies, you are not likely to like him after death. But if you cared for the individual before the bereavement and now turn away from him, this may indicate the presence of deeper emotional trouble than one ordinarily expects.

Hostility of an extreme kind that lasts long is closely related to the preceding. For example: The man who continues to hate God intensely for taking his wife. The survivors who hate the medical staff and the institution in which the individual died. This may be aggravated by a paranoid reaction a continued feeling of being persecuted, abused, mistreated.

IV. Permanent Loss of Life Patterns

Another symptom of abnormal grief is in lasting loss of patterns of living. We have already said that temporary lapses can be normal. This is often the effect of shock. But if this continues indefinitely, we are dealing with a pathological condition. The careful man is now practically a hobo; the careful woman is almost never neat; the thrifty wife is now a reckless spender; the modest and reserved woman is apparently enjoying the company of gigolos.

V. Agitated Depression

Finally, you may see what is called an agitated depression. This almost explains itself. For this, a referral to a psychiatrist is definitely in order. Out of this can come attempts at suicide or a much slower form of selfdestruction in neglect of the body or in the use of alcohol or drugs.


Having dealt with symptoms briefly, we can explore for a few minutes what can be done for a person suffering grief. To begin with, we should certainly allow the person to "ventilate" his grief. We should avoid saying, "Pull yourself together. Keep a stiff upper lip. Think about something else." This is a common approach in our Western culture. Many Asians can find relief in expressing grief almost without restraint. In some groups, mourners may even be hired to express the family's feelings. We Westerners, however, have to be strong and silent, taking our grief real well. This is especially true of the men. Here the women can often get relief easier and sooner because society expects her to be "weaker" and more emotionally free.

Efforts to deflect the expression of grief are common. One of my counseling friends told me this story: He went to the home of his wife's parents at the time her father had died. When he entered the home, a number of friends and relatives were sitting in the living room. He asked, "Where's mother?" "She's upstairs. She's prostrate with grief. We tried to keep her from thinking about it and tried to help." He went up and sat by the bed. Then he said, "You miss him a lot, don't you?" She began to cry, deep, welling sobs. As she quieted down, he said, "You lived with him for a long time, didn't you?" Again the tears. He was, in effect, verbalizing the emotions she was feeling, thus giving her a channel by which her tears could flow normally and drain out these feelings. He did it with understanding, of course. An hour later she was downstairs preparing supper for the whole group. Why? Because the tension level had been reduced to the point where she could momentarily handle it. Her grief had found a normal expression.

Sometimes we mistakenly try to keep persons from talking about the deceased; we even try to keep them from thinking about him. We suggest taking a trip, doing something. Yet we must allow some thinking about the person who has gone, some expression of feelings; in fact, we should encourage this. Grief work must be done when it normally should or it will be done later with more serious consequences to the individual. We ought not to rush in with a text too quickly. We sometimes use texts to block the grief work. There is enough time for the matter of accepting God's will in the situation. Human grief needs expression. Even Lazarus' sisters cried a great deal. The Lord evidently did not stop this; in fact, He joined them. After this came the comforting statement and demonstration of "I am the resurrection and the life."

Admitting the reality of physical death and the great pain that it causes does not make us less spiritual. However glorious the future, the present centers on the fact that the loved one is gone and that a great loss has been suffered a loss that stirs up a mixture of feelings about the deceased, about God, and about the unhappy situation the survivors find themselves in. Certainly the Lord knows how we feel in these circumstances and is patient and generous enough to allow us time to get our bearings.

Other types of circumstances can also bring on grief reactions. In mentioning the following items, I must acknowledge a particular debt to Richard Young.


Divorce will often create a grief situation. Here one sees many of the symptoms of normal (or abnormal) grief. To some men and women, this ending to a marriage is like the loss of a loved one the shattering of a life. This is particularly true in women who have been unusually dependent and are frightened to face life alone.

Separation, but usually on a more modified scale, can bring grief symptoms. A son going into the Army can bring this about also. Sometimes the parents fear he will be killed, and so by anticipation he is practically dead on entrance into the Army. The Army's call almost means, "My boy is going to die." For some women, the last child's departure from home has a measure of grief reaction in it. Mothers, you remember how you felt when your child went off to school for the first time. You were proud he was growing up and yet regretful at losing your baby. Someone else, you thought, will now have charge of him for a large part of his day. Mother is not needed so much any more.

Sometimes a sudden loss of property can cause grief reactions. Retiring from a job, particularly if one has the feeling of being "shoved," is another area in which grief reveals itself. Obviously, men and women approaching retirement age should plan constructively for the change.

For some parents, putting a mentally retarded child into an institution is almost equivalent to seeing the child die."Why did we have a baby like this? What did we do that was wrong?" Now they may feel that they are attempting to evade a burden that is rightly theirs, to get out of "doing penance." Even the feeling of relief of these persons feel brings with it an overtone of guilt.

An amputation, too, is much like a grief situation. A woman losing a breast in an operation for cancer can suffer a great deal of emotional distress because she feels less desirable to her husband. This can add to the shock of losing the breast. Frequently soldiers who have lost limbs through war injuries have felt unwilling to return to their wives, thinking that they were less men than before and that the wives would share their own reduced image of themselves.

For some children, a move to a new neighborhood may bring on grief symptoms. The child feels he has lost all his friends; he has left all the familiar places. Mixed with this can be strong feelings of resentment and hostility against the parents for making the change. A more common experience of childhood resembling bereavement for adults is the loss of a well-loved pet. Most parents have arranged for at least one "funeral" like this in the course of their family's existence.


Homesickness was pointed out as a type of grief situation.

Catherine Marshall's book To Live Again was recommended for its frank and delicate discussion of the emotional distress many widows feel because of unrelieved sexual tensions.

A reprint from the April, 1960, issue of Good Housekeeping was recommended as being one of the finest, simplest descriptions of grief work available anywhere.

The most comprehensive work to date on grief, Understanding Grief, by Edgar N. Jackson, was called to the attention of the group.

It was pointed out that what is normal and what is abnormal in grief would depend on the standards set by any given culture. The statements made in this exposition of grief work arise out of customs and mores of our North American culture.

A short discussion followed on funeral procedures, funeral sermons, and procedure in the funeral of a suicide.

Charles E. Wittschiebe was a professor of the Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University when he wrote this article.